Meetup with friends during COVID-19

A good friend I’d made through work and I decided to finally get together since January, before the pandemic began in New York, today with our respective husbands. It was funny when we first met; we weren’t sure if we should be hugging, elbow tapping, or shoe tapping to greet each other. But that’s the thing during a global pandemic where everyone is concerned about germs and hygiene: I guess handshaking and/or kissing is probably the least hygienic greeting, followed by hugs. Maybe the Asian greeting of showing hands together and doing a little bow was really the best idea all along, conveying both warmth and respect at the same time.

We had never met each others’ husbands before, so it was interesting to watch the two get along pretty well and bond over travel, airlines and hotels, airline and hotel status, and so on. Another area that stood out was when my friend’s husband summarized all Chinese vegetables (very relevant given the experience with the white woman and her daughter at outdoor seating yesterday) as “all the choys!” Until that moment, I’d never heard a more perfect summation of Asian vegetables ever before. As soon as those words came out of his mouth, I knew… I liked this guy.

Massage and dinner in Chinatown

One of the indulgences that Chris loves the most is having a massage. He could probably just get his back rubbed all day, and he’d be a happy baby. Since massage spas have been allowed to open up during the pandemic, Chris jumped at the chance to get a massage at his favorite spot in Chinatown. Usually when we do this, we also plan to eat in Chinatown, and I make sure to stock up on all my favorite Asian produce and ingredients while down there.

While I understand that it’s for everyone’s safety, the one precaution we are required to take while getting a massage is to wear a mask. The first time we did this, my mask didn’t really allow for much breathing space for my nose, so I felt stifled the whole time and had to keep taking deep breaths. Since then, I’ve expanded my mask collection so that I have ones that are roomier around my nostrils, so I was able to relax a bit more this time around.

We indulged in suckling pig and roast duck, along with Gai lan vegetables for dinner. As we sat outside in the spacious outdoor seating area of Wu’s Wonton King, a white woman with her daughter sat behind us. As she was ordering, she added at the end that she’d “like some Chinese vegetables, too.” The server looked at her and said, “Many Chinese vegetables… you want Chinese broccoli? Bok choy? Pea shoots?”

The woman turned to look at our table and pointed at our plate of garlicky gai lan, “That Chinese vegetable!” she exclaimed. We briefly made eye contact and she winked at me and smiled.

Non-Indian who loves Indian food

I was having a chat with one of my Instagram/blogger friends, and she marveled how fascinated she was by my mere existence, how “I’ve never met or known any non-Indian who is as interested in Indian food as you are. You know and cook more Indian food than many Indians!” She told me that she talked about me and my posts a lot with her Indian husband, who was also born and raised for most of his childhood in India. “She’s a non-desi, but she makes every Indian dish! I don’t think it’s possible for her to fail making anything Indian!” she exclaimed to him.

It’s like the e-mail thread I’ve been on with Chris’s mom’s cousin about how to make appam. I had repeatedly failed at getting the right texture and look, and so what originally started as an appam recipe exchange morphed into a “what is your favorite Jasmine rice brand?” to “do you want the all-time best Kerala chicken stew recipe from a Syrian Christian”? discussion. I love, love these conversations so much.

These conversations generally only happen with people who are super food obsessed down to the last grain of rice or the last gram of spice. Chris’s aunt also marveled over my attention to detail at making idlis from scratch: “I just buy the ready-made batter!” she said. I could even hear her voice through the email. Yep, I am a perfectionist. If you’re going to do something, you better do it all the way, otherwise just stop altogether.

Social media friends

Since I’ve become more active on social media to support YmF, I’ve had all kinds of fun, interesting interaction with other food vloggers and small business owners, many of whom have suggested that we meet up at some point in this COVID-19 global pandemic. Of the friends I’ve made to date, only a tiny handful are as passionate about food and how it’s intertwined with culture the way I am. Through Instagram and YouTube, I’ve been able to connect with people who are just as obsessed and passionate as I am.

One woman I’ve met is a small business owner who is currently running an ice cream business out of her home kitchen, churning small batches of desi-inspired ice cream flavors and delivering them to residents across the New York City area. She’s ethnically Chinese, but her grandparents actually immigrated from Indonesia to the U.S., so culturally, they are very Indonesian. She also married an ethnically Indian man originally from Delhi, so there’s so many cultural layers to their union. Another woman is based in Jersey City but originally from New Delhi, and we’ve had many long Instagram chats about cooking different dishes, ingredients, and our mutual love of chai.

The blogger/vlogger world, though I’m still quite new to it, has been very interesting and fun to be a part of. Through this, I can finally start meeting like-minded people who get as excited and giddy about food, culture, and travel as I do. While working in tech has had many benefits and I’ve met lots of incredibly smart, talented, and good humans through it, the food world is altogether a very different place; it almost feels just more core to me and what I care about.

Social media following

To get to the point, my YmF social media following has been pretty abysmal. I was posting a couple times a week on Instagram for nearly a year, and no one new was really following me other than people I already knew or were connected to me in some way. Then finally, a month ago, I started doing more engagement with other food/cooking Instagrammers and YouTubers. I did more interaction, posting, and commenting on Reddit. I also started commenting and watching other vloggers’ videos on YouTube. And then within the last month, I gained over 100 new Instagram followers just from that. My subscriber count on YouTube has also been increasing much quicker since mid-July, as well. Maybe then, the key is really a lot of interaction and engagement from and with similar accounts to start appearing as “suggested” for following for those prime to find new content and handles to follow. Weeeee.

Mortar and pestle basil pesto

I’d always been curious and thought about buying a mortar and pestle. I’d seen it used in so many cuisines, from Vietnam to Thailand to Mexico and across South American and African cuisines. Yet I’d put off buying one for so long, thinking that I wouldn’t use it very much. And since I live in Manhattan, space has always factored in as an issue, as a mortar and pestle is something I’d want on display in my kitchen. I finally sucked it up a couple months ago and bought one, and on average since then I’ve used it about once a week, which is pretty darn good for a kitchen item I had hesitated on for so long. I’ve used it to crush whole, toasted spices, mash sauces, smash ginger and garlic, and today, I’ve finally used it for pesto.

Since I first watched Samin Nosrat’s Salt Fat Acid Heat Netflix series and read her book by the same name, I knew I had to try my hand at making pesto with a mortar and pestle. Before I watched this, I had never really thought about the mechanics of how a mortar and pestle is different than a food processor. I’d only ever made pesto with a food processor. So to learn and think about the fact that a food processor, with a metal blade that rips and shreds ingredients, would yield a different texture and taste vs. a mortar and pestle, which crushes individual cells to release aromatic compounds, was quite fascinating and made me think about how to do this myself.

So I tried it today and filmed a video on it, and the end result was what I suspected; the taste and texture were far, far superior to pesto made in a food processor. It really could not be compared; it was thicker, creamier, chunkier, and so much nuttier and richer in taste and scent. It was certainly an arm workout, as it took a very long time to fully crush the basil leaves, but all that work was worth it. I think I’m ruined on regular pesto from here on out.

Saturday outer borough exploration continues – Elmhurst love

Yesterday, we spent the afternoon exploring the Sunnyside, Woodside, Elmhurst, and Jackson Heights areas of Queens. This area is near and dear to me since I lived in Elmhurst for my first four years in New York, and because of that, spent a good amount of time exploring these other three surrounding neighborhoods. The true glory of New York to me has always been its insanely diverse population of people. In a single neighborhood, particularly if you are in Queens, you could easily walk through it and hear over 20-30 different languages being spoken. And with a diverse group of people always comes a diverse array of cuisines and dishes that you can choose from. Because of this, I will always consider myself a Queens baby and have immense pride for having lived in Queens. And I obviously still come back to it all the time to eat and explore and find new delicious things.

In our afternoon of exploration, we had snacks at a Paraguayan restaurant, explored a few Filipino markets, purchased some fresh and jarred items to cook with at a local Thai grocery store with great prices, and ended in Woodside, where we ate at one of my all-time favorite restaurants in New York City — Ayada Thai. Until this day, Ayada has the best Thai fish, tom yum soup, and papaya salads I’ve ever eaten outside of Thailand, and they do NOT shy away from the heat – you will leave sweating and borderline in pain!

I was pleasantly surprised to see how two blocks in this area were completely blocked off from car traffic and set up completely for spacious outdoor dining, complete with overhangs to shade from the sun and lots of hand sanitizing stations. I felt so happy to see this; these quiet little Woodside/Elmhurst streets had been fully transformed in a positive way that they weren’t even fully recognizable to me at the beginning. They felt so warm and inviting, charming, cozy and fun. A huge feeling of pride came over me; my old neighborhood is just killing it during COVID-19. I really hope these delicious family-owned businesses can survive this pandemic. It will be a total loss to our city and our stomachs if they do not.

Patel Brothers: a new experience in the ‘burbs

During our day trip yesterday to Jersey, we spent some time exploring the Indian and Filipino shops in Edison, and one of the places I briefly popped into in search of the season’s very last mangoes was Patel Brothers. Since I’d been to the Jackson Heights location so many times, I really didn’t think much of going into this location (also, there are THREE Patel Brothers within short driving distance on the exact same street in Edison! What is this about??). But when I stopped in after Chris dropped me off on a mango mission, I was immediately taken by the fact that when I entered, to the left of the entrance was an entire BAKERY devoted to fresh Indian breads: parathas, rotis, naans, theplas, samosas, puri… I could not believe it. Some people were standing in line for the breads just out of the oven. The front was lined was recently baked, still warm breads. It smelled like a mix of cumin, hing, ghee, and wheat. I was seriously in heaven and could not stop gawking at the bakery and all its offerings. It’s like I was a kid in a candy shop and I couldn’t contain how overwhelmed I was. I wanted to buy one of each, but ended up exercising some self restraint and settling on the coriander thepla and the palak parathas. How was it possible that I had no idea that Patel Brothers in the suburbs could have a bakery component? I wish the Jackson Heights location had a fresh bakery! I felt so deprived and like I had been missing out for the last twelve years of living in New York and being a regular customer at the Jackson Heights Patel Brothers!

I was likely the only non-South-Asian customer in the entire store — at least from what I could see. As I waited in line to purchase my breads and mangoes, I noticed the trays of mangoes strategically placed at the entrance of the store. As each couple or family unit entered, it was literally these actions taken, one after the other, no fail: Enter, grab cart, plop a tray of mangoes, proceed. Enter, grab cart, plop on a tray of mangoes, proceed. The store knew what it was doing. It knows its clientele. It knows that South Asians love their mangoes, and so they placed these right at the entrance to lure the customers. And lure they did.

I, however, did not need to be lured. I came in with one mission: buy those mangoes. And I left with not just a tray of mangoes, but also TWO TYPES OF FRESH INDIAN FLAT BREADS — oh, and some Parle-G biscuits since they happened to be on sale, and they go pretty darn well with my ritual Friday chai. It may have been the best day ever in a long time for me.

day trip to Jersey

Our second day trip out of the city this summer was to New Jersey today for a mix of nature and hiking, local orchards and produce, and exploration of Edison, New Jersey, arguably one of the largest Indian-populated towns in the country.

After a morning hike, we visited Terhune Orchards in Princeton, New Jersey, and Chris immediately felt at home when he saw a sign at the entrance that said, “No pets, No picnics.” Many signs were everywhere to emphasize social distancing and limiting head count in indoor areas, and they even had hand washing and hand sanitizing stations outside throughout the property, so it was clear that this place took health and safety seriously. What really stood out to me immediately, other than the health signs, was the fact that they were selling apple cider slushies and apple cider donuts.

As soon as I see apple cider donuts and apple cider signs, that’s when I know for sure that autumn is right around the corner and that summer is really coming to an end. Apple cider donuts just scream “FALL” to me. It feels especially strange this year given the COVID-19 pandemic, as we’d normally take a few trips between Memorial Day and Labor Day, and this year, we really did nothing outside of the city other than two day trips within the tai-state area. It’s the end of the summer time… starting now…

Interview presentation

In 12+years of working full time, I somehow have managed, until this day, to get away with never doing a single presentation for an interview. I’ve always hated presentations, and I have a particular distaste for mock presentations where everything is fake, but everyone involved has to pretend it is all real. I’ve always thought that because I didn’t enjoy presentations that I wasn’t actually good at it. My friends and colleagues, though, who have all seen me present, have said that watching me, they would never have guessed I hated it, and that it appears that it comes naturally to me. I guess fake it until you make it? My former colleague and now friend made a good point to me, though: “There’s a difference between hating something and actually not being good at it. You may hate the process of putting the deck together or the delivery of it, but no one else has any idea at all because your delivery is good.”

So I gave a presentation for about 45 minutes today to a panel of six participants. And as I suspected, a couple people decided to throw in some curve balls to throw me off guard to see how calm and collected I could be under pressure. What I always remind myself in these tense situations is to a) breathe, b) think about the question before I speak, and c) as a result of b, do NOT use stupid filler words like “um,” or “uhh,” and instead, pause and use silence as my time to think, as that will actually make me come across as more thoughtful and deliberate.

It seemed to work. The recruiter emailed me a few hours later and said that all signs were quite positive post presentation.